I get a little giddy over ply, the twisting together of two or more strands of yarn. I talk about it a lot when I teach spinning, and have even converted a knitter or two to spinning based solely on the power of ply.
Ply does deep-down delectable things to your knitting. It can transform color (hello, marl), texture, durability, weight, and—cue the choir—stitch definition. You can change how your knitting looks just by changing the number of plies in your yarn.
As a knitter choosing a yarn to use for a project, my big three are durability, weight and stitch definition.
Plied yarns are more durable, less susceptible to pilling. Imagine a single-ply yarn, she’s lithe and beautiful, but lonely. When knit into fabric she stands alone against the stretching and rubbing of the world. Imagine she had a sister or two by her side. By twisting strands together, each strand has a lot less of its surface exposed, and they are able to stand strong against the patriarchy of pilling.
Plying can contribute to the weight of a garment. Want a light sweater? Don’t look at a five-ply yarn. There is an exception to this (isn’t there always?): a multi-plied yarn is lighter than a single-ply yarn of the same size. Why? There is air between those plies, and the single-ply is just one solid chunk of fiber.
The sweetest spot of plied yarns is in stitch definition. Depending on the number of plies in your yarn the finished knitted fabric will look, sometimes dramatically, different.
The yarns I’m using are all fine yarns, spun from Merino and Cormo. All three have an intrinsic look of softness and a matte surface.
Single-ply (singles): Mrs. Crosby, Satchel (100% Superwash Merino), Color: Spun Gold.
2-ply: Sincere Sheep, Cormo Fingering (100% Cormo), Color: Vit C.
3-ply: Sincere Sheep, Cormo Sport (100% Cormo), Color: Vit C.
The Big Three: Single-Ply, 2-Ply, and 3-Ply
Today’s yarns are single-ply (spinners call these singles), 2-ply and 3-ply yarns. There are lots of other yarn constructions, yarns that are wrapped, cabled or chained. Those are for another day. Today we’re hitting the big three.
Yarn is built from energy, which we talk about as twist. Single-ply yarn has a single twist in one direction and plied yarns have two twists, one to create the single (in one direction) and one to create the ply (in the opposite direction). These twists create shape and motion in the yarn and contribute to the look and performance of knitted fabric.
Single-ply yarn has a roundish shape that can flatten easily. It has motion in only one direction, which can cause biasing when knit, if there is too much twist in the yarn.
Two-ply yarn is oval in shape. The ply twist moves the strands outward, they push away from each other when knit.
Three-ply yarn is round in shape. The ply twist moves the strands inward, they push toward each other when knit.
Ply, as Applied: Stockinette
Single-ply (left): Single-ply yarn is smooth and stays where you put it when blocked; the stitches line up nicely. In stockinette stitch, it shows every weirdness in your knitting. I row out, my knit and purl tension is very different, and it really shows in stockinette with a single-ply yarn. This is the stitch that will bias if there is any over-twist in the yarn. Sometimes you can block it out, sometimes you can’t.
Two-ply (center): Two-ply yarn has its own party, look how textured the surface of the 2-ply swatch is. There is no bias with a 2-ply yarn because the plies balance the twist. But because of the outward motion of the two plies pushing away from each other, there is a lot of visual movement on the surface of the knitted fabric. It looks toothy and organic.
Three-ply: Three-ply yarn is round and creates even fabric. The stitches line up and the surface of the knitting is smooth and placid. I am fascinated by the difference in the look of 2-ply and 3-ply yarn in stockinette. The 2-ply is rocking the soul train to funky town, and the 3-ply is ballroom dancing a serene waltz.
Single-ply: Single-ply yarns are obedient. When you block them into lace, they stay. Because single-ply yarn sometimes flattens and it doesn’t have the extra shadows between plies, the lace has a much softer, less crisp look.
Two-ply: The obstinate attitude that makes a 2-ply yarn so frisky in stockinette makes it a glorious yarn for lace. The stitches roll away from each other; opening the lace holes. The surface playfulness leads your eye all over the lace pattern.
Three-ply: The roundness of a 3-ply makes smooth lace. The inward twist energy of a 3-ply yarn makes the stitches roll toward each other, causing the lace holes to try to close. What strikes me even more is that 3-ply yarn makes textured stitches stand out in bold. When I look at a lace pattern knit in a 3-ply yarn, the first thing I see are the decreases gorgeously stacked up, overpowering the lace.
Single-ply: Cables knit out of a single-ply yarn are soft and flat-ish. A good look for a light summer top, but not what I want for an Aran sweater.
Two-ply: A 2-ply cable is a big step up from a single-ply cable. There are edges to these cables, but they really don’t stand up.
Three-ply: A 3-ply (or more) yarn makes the best cables and textured stitches. They roll in and push up. Three-ply yarns make themselves heard. They are crisp, have sharp edges and stand up like the Cliffs of Moher.
Colorwork swatch background colors: French Chambray in Mrs. Crosby single-ply, and St. Barts in Sincere Sheep 2-ply and 3-ply.
Single-ply: Single ply yarns are soft and flow-y when used for any kind of color work. The lines between stitches are undefined because the yarns spread out. This contributes to the classic look of Lopi sweaters, in which colors seem to flow into each other.
Two-ply: The pushing away motion of a 2-ply yarn leads to soft blurry edges between colors. Two-ply yarn is fantastic when you want that misty-water-color-memory look for Fair Isle or Bohus knitting.
Three-ply: Three-ply colorwork knitting has crispy clean edges. Each stitch is distinct, making colors very clear. Three-ply is great for intarsia, or if you want your Scandinavian snowflakes to really stand out.
Ply is so alluring. It’s exciting that an attribute that is so easily overlooked can have such impact on knitted fabric.
Which ply will you choose for your next knit?